To kill or not to kill, that is the question. In civilizations where education was not yet established, people turn to sacrifices in their superstitious practices in order to gain favor or blessings from the gods. These sacrifices might be as simple as food offering, or as cruel as human sacrifice (insert horrified face). We dare you to venture in for a closer look... NORSE RELIGION
The Norse, commonly known as the Vikings, are people who lived in Scandinavia and Northern Germany during the medieval age between 793–1066 C.E. It was believed that before converting into Christianity, the Norse people had their own religion, though they had no specific name to it. They spoke their own language, the Old Norse, which was very similar to Old English because both came from the same Germanic descent.
The Norse Saga
An interesting fact surrounding the Norse mythology was that many historians study the Norse culture through ancient texts known as ‘sagas’, which literally translates to ‘something being said’. (Leeming, D.A, 2015) Sagas are narratives, such as poems or prose, that was written in Old Norse during the thirteenth and fourteenth century. Although they are not usually primary sources, sagas provide detailed information about the Norse culture that would otherwise be unknown to the world.
Central to the spirituality of the Norse is the Norse Pantheon, which consists of two categories of Gods: Aesir and Vanir. Aesir were the Gods of war, power and death. The leading Gods of Aesir were Odin, his son Thor; while the leading Gods of Vanir were the twin counterparts and siblings, Freyr and Freyja.
Gods of Aesir
Odin, the head of the Aesir gods was most commonly worshiped because of his significant role. He was the God of war, poetry and wisdom. According to myth of Yggdrasil, Odin was also known to have mystical and shamanic abilities such that he could extract wisdom from the dead, something he did when he sacrificed himself on the world tree in order to learn the mysteries of life and death (Leeming, D.A, 2015, p.152). He is most commonly recognized as the God who has only one eye, in which he trade for wisdom (Daniel, M., 2013), and who carries his unfailing spear, Gungknir.
Traditionally, Odin was the God who received the most sacrifices, particularly sacrifices of the human kind. The most notorious myth that revolve around Odin was the macabre ritual killing known as the 'blood-eagle', which was often held as victory were brought to the Norse in battle. Michael Wood claimed that in 867, when the 'Norse attacked the kingdom of Northumbria, they captured the Northumbrian king Aelle and performed the blood eagle rite'. In this ritual, Aelle's chest was cut open, his ribs split and his lungs was pulled out from inside the ribcage. Then, it was spread out and pinned back to his chest like the shape of an eagle's wings.
(Yikes... I'm never gonna look at eagles with the same eyes again!)
Thor, on the other hand, did not require human sacrifice. As the keeper of thunder and lightning, Thor was considered integral to the agriculture cycle. Legends suggested that it was he who blessed the land upon which the first Icelanders settled on. With that blessing, only did the earth unravel, rain fall, and crops grow. As such, the Norse offered him animal sacrifices, often goats, in hope of good harvests, and during times of hunger or disease. Many Norse wore hammer-shaped amulets as a sign of respect and worship for the god, as Thor's hammer, Mjollnir, was the symbol of his power.
Just For Laughs
Thor's traditional depiction:
Our perception of Thor today:
DO Click on this link to watch a fascinating video of the Gods of Asgard to learn more!
The Vanir Gods
Vanir represented the Gods of fertility, who were more concerned with the welfare of humanity. The most distinguished figures were Freyr, the Norse God of fertility and wealth, and his twin sister Freyja, the Goddess of love, beauty and sexuality.
Offerings for Freyr were usually made at weddings to gain the blessings of joy and fertility to the married couple. As a practice, a boar would be killed and its blood poured into a bowl that was placed upon a type of altar called the högr. After which, fir twigs would be used to dip into the bowl and waved in the form of a hammer as part of the ritual. Lastly, the participants would be consecrated through the splattering of the boar's blood.
Sacramental meal or feast named ‘Blot’, where most scholars have translated to mean “sacrifice”, has been commonly practiced by the Norse. As stated by Fiona Wilkinson, there was one type of blot described by the historian, Sturluson, in his Heimskringla saga. It was a sacrificial feast that was held in the place called Troøndelay in which horses and pigs, were killed and cooked in a deep pit. The blood of these animals were sprinkled on the walls and images of the Gods of Odin ad Freyr, as well as the participants of the ritual. The blood was thought to contain special powers. Before the feast began, the food and drink would be blessed by a chieftain, and then participants would drink to the Gods for victory, fertility and peace.
CHINA (SHANG DYNASTY)
Coming all the way from the other side of the globe, is the continent of China. The Chinese, too, have some interesting practices birthed from religious as well as political influences. The Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 BCE) seems particularly interested in human sacrifice.
Who did they worship?
The Shang people worshipped “上帝”, or “Supreme God”, who was the god of all other gods. They also worshipped their own ancestors because after their death, ancestors were still thought to be very much alive in heaven, meddling with family affairs.
What were the main purposes of sacrifice? In those days, the idea of sacrifice was widespread and common. It had two purposes: for religious communication and political control. Kings would communicate with these ancestors using oracle bones; leaders made use of sacrifice in hopes of legitimising their leadership.
They sacrificed mainly animals and yes, humans. Animals included dogs, sheep, oxen and pigs (On one occasion, more than a hundred dogs were buried beneath Shang capital’s city walls!).
Non-living objects like wine, millet, tools, weapons and clothing were also sacrificed, but less frequently.
- Religious communication
Sacrifices were made to enquire for the help of spirits and ancestors to give thanks, or simply to keep their ‘tummy’ full, where smoke emitted from the burnt sacrifices will ascend to the heavens and ‘feed’ the spirits, appeasing them. If not, people were sure (or so they thought) to be met with numerous disasters.
In return, the spirits will be able to perform certain valuable ‘services’. Apparently, the blood of the sacrifices could terminate natural calamities like floods and droughts. People could also have climactic conditions turn to their favour, which agriculture depended very much upon.
- Political control
Prisoners of war, slaves, relatives or lower-ranking servants, in particular, will be buried in the tombs of the dead, especially for the royalty. This is because the Shang people believed that those under service of a king, or had blood relations with him, were similarly expected to continue that relationship in the afterlife.
Human sacrifices were also used as a scapegoat to eliminate the community from evil. Sheep-rearers from the nomadic Qiang tribe, beggars, cripples - basically any other people at the fringe of society then - were a hot favourite. This could be to create and maintain social order, to tell everyone that the Shang people were on top (cue America's Next Top Model theme song).
Another interesting intention of human sacrifice was to strengthen the foundation of a structure or building. A famous example in Chinese history was Ts’ai, the crown prince. After being caught in battle which resulted in the defeat of his kingdom, he was sacrificed with the objective of strengthening a dam.
What was the process?
According to historical pictographs dug up, there are 37 categories of blood and food sacrifices.
- Splitting bodies into halves
- Beating to death
- Chopping to death
- Taking blood
And there we go! 2 superficially different but fundamentally similar cultures. Aren't you glad that these practices are no longer in place? Or are they...?
Crystal Tan Leong Jiang Maan Lim Zi Ying